Ranches: Wildlands or scenery?

  Dear HCN,
I am writing in response to a letter from Nathan Sayre, wherein he reiterated the often-heard claim from ranchers that the preservation of public-lands ranching will prevent sprawl, (HCN, 3/17/03: Ranching is preventing sprawl). I would like to respond to Mr. Sayre’s conclusion that, “Even under mediocre management, I’ll take one cow every 40 acres, over one house, any day.”

His opinion seems to originate from the popular assumption that agricultural development is inherently more desirable than residential development. But agriculture is a human technology, too. Most ranch base properties aren’t pristine wild lands. They usually have houses, barns, sheds, fences, denuded feeding pastures, irrigated fields and the associated water diversions necessary to grow something on them. If the issue is protection of natural wildlife habitats, and the species that rely upon them, then there’s often little difference between a ranch complex and a housing development. In both cases, the land is developed. Usually, the gain in quality wildlife habitat that would occur if grazing were stopped on the 30,000 or so acres of the associated federal grazing allotment would more than offset whatever marginal improvement in local wildlife habitat there might be if the base property was maintained as a ranch instead of a neighborhood.

If the issue is one of aesthetics, however, ranches may be preferable to neighborhoods. But people shouldn’t confuse preservation of the local pastoral scenery with the preservation of our rapidly dwindling wild lands.

Jeff Burgess
Tempe, Arizona
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